hornebillCanadian Navy vet Bill Horne served in the North Atlantic, during the Second World War, ensuring supplies made it to Europe. (Courtesy Cheryl Horne)You can find almost anything on the internet these days. Recently, navy veteran Bill Horne of Kenora found a copy of a documentary featuring his old ship, HMCS Merrittonia. It brought back a lot of memories from his service, during the Second World War.

When he was 18, Horne was actually in the air cadets at the time, but the only jobs they had in the air force were cooks and tail gunners.

"The average lifespan of a tail gunner in combat was eight minutes. So, I didn't really want that," he said.

When he decided to enlist, he went with Bob DeGagne of Norman, but they had to say they were going to join the army, in order to get a free train ticket to Winnipeg.

That didn't quite work out. After they arrived in Winnipeg, there was a storm overnight, and they couldn't get any breakfast.

So, they went over to the navy, instead. Horne says HMCS Chippawa was a much nicer place, since it had a swimming pool.

"We were the two most anxious people to join up," Horne recalled. "A month later, they came looking for me in Keewatin. My mother said 'You're too late. He's in the navy.' "

After a month in Winnipeg, Horne was shipped to Dow's Lake in Ottawa for basic training. Then, he was on to Ste-Hyacinthe in Quebec for eight weeks.

"I was a wireless operator and a decoder," he said, recalling memories from long ago.

On Dec. 31, 1944, he set sail from Halifax. They took off to Bermuda for a maiden voyage.

"We had a green crew on. It was a new boat. Nobody knew their job, but after three months, they got the order to go to sea," he remembered.

"HMCS Lanark was our frigate. That was our senior officer. These are corvettes: were Copper Cliff, Hawkesbury, Merrittonia, Parry Sound, Castle Bay. It was made on the Clyde River in Scotland," he said.

During the Second World War, the Canadian Navy grew to be one of the largest in the world, as the country met the challenges of war.

According to the Canadian War Museum, Canada’s navy in September 1939 included only 3,500 personnel, and six ocean-going warships. By the last months of the war, the navy had grown to a strength of over 95,000 personnel. The fleet committed to the Battle of the Atlantic included some 270 ocean escort warships.

In 1945, Canada possessed the third-largest navy in the world after the fleets of the United States and Britain. The most important measure of its success was the safe passage during the war of over 25,000 merchant ships under Canadian escort. These cargo vessels delivered nearly 165 million tons of supplies to Britain and to the Allied forces that liberated Europe.

Horne recalled their first convoy had about 100 ships, most of them carrying supplies, as they went from Newfoundland to Londonderry, Ireland.

"There was only six of us (corvettes) to protect us," he said. "It was absolutely terrible. The sea was our worst enemy. The submarines were next," he recalled.

Any storm on Lake of the Woods pales by comparison.

"We got into one storm on our second trip over. It lasted for nine days. I'm just estimating the waves were 60 ft high coming at us. That gives you a 60 ft gully. So, you're climbing up this huge thing that's 120 ft, and you never quite get to the top. The top breaks off on the front of your ship," he said.

"They weren't very comfortable," he said, referring to the corvettes.

Crew members worked four hours on and four hours off. Then, there were two dog watches from 4 'til 6, then another from 6 to 8, he said, adding they didn't work the same hours from one day to the next.

His main job was to relay messages, and it could be tough in rough seas.

"There was just a sliding door, and I could get a look at the guy trying to steer the ship," he recalled. "When that bad storm hit, that I was tellin' you about, there were only two seamen qualified to steer the ship. One of them was Kenny McKellar from Keewatin. The other was old John. He was from the merchant marine. Old John was about 30. We were all so young. I was 19."

Horne actually lived across the street from Kenny, and it was unusual, since they didn't usually put people on the same ship with others they knew.

The escort duties themselves went relatively well. The convoys Horne served with only lost one ship.

"It was near the rear of the convoy. It was torpedoed, and we were detailed off to pick up any survivors. So, we went toward it. We started to circle around it, and it caught on fire and it blew up. There were no survivors at all. Nothing. Just people floating in the water. We couldn't even pick them up, because the submarines always came back to take a few pictures to show what they'd done. We would've been sitting ducks. We figured it must've been carrying aviation gas, because the explosion blew the ship all to pieces," he recalled.

"My exit station was bridge messenger. So, when the communications broke down, the communications were by voice pipe or telephone. All it takes is one shell, and everything's gone. I was to run here and there with the messages. In heavy seas, it was pretty dangerous," he said.

The leather boots they issued were pretty slippery. Once, he was almost swept overboard. So, he switched to running shoes, even in winter time.

The southern routes near the Azores were much better.

When the Germans surrendered in 1945, Horne volunteered to serve in the Pacific, because the war against Japan was still going. He was allowed a month off, so he returned for a visit to Kenora, before reporting for more service.

"It was the best summer of my life," he remembered, saying he visited the clubs and the dances.

During that summer, the two atom bombs were dropped on Japan, and the war ended. Horne's service was over by October.

During his years in the navy, he recalled serving with a North Bay resident, who had a real talent for drawing and later became an architect. Another was from northeastern Ontario, and they returned home together, but later lost touch.

"I wouldn't recommend it to anybody, but it had to be done," he said, looking back on it all.

(Originally posted Nov. 5, 2017)

For more information:

Obituary - Bill Horne

Canadian War Museum - Battle of the Atlantic

Veterans Affairs - Battle of the Atlantic

Images - HMCS Merrittonia

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